on 3 July 2003
Made in 1988, this small scale drama never really found the audience it deserved. Whilst it is in way a typical Hollywood film or innovative it is a character piece that bears comparison with more recent small town dramas like 'In The Bedroom' and 'You Can Count On Me'. Under Lumet's strong, taught but never stagey direction there are three oustanding performances by the leads - Judd Hirsh, the superb Christine Lahti and the sadly missed River Pheonix.
At the beginning we meet the Popes (Hirsh and Lahti) together with there two sons (Pheonix and the young Jonas Abry) in mid west small town america. They would appear to be any ordinary small town blue collar family. Except they are not - the parents have been on the run since the sixities, hunted by the FBI for their involvement in a radical group's bombing. They lead a life on constant watch for the cadillac at the end of the street, the stiff suit prowling the neighbourhood, the unwanted question that will break their false identities. We see closely how the children, born into this life, accept the need to drop everything and run. The sentence they live under is as harsh as time in jail - they can have no friends beyond those they know from the 60's and they can never feel safe.
Pheonix is approaching adolesence; he is begining to realise that he wants roots. In a new town he makes a stumbling friendship with the excellent Martha Plimpton (her quirky good looks are sadly missed from the screen today). He also has developed his mother's talent at the piano and is spotted by Plimton's musical parents. The tensions arise as Pheonix trys to make his place in the world and step away from the protective umbrella of his parent's paranoia. As the drama reaches its conclusion this nuclear family realises it can no longer survive.
The performances are of a depth and understanding that are rarely seen today. Hirsh, as the family leader and still angry radical is supreme in his dealings with Pheonix; he has enough cool left in him to seem hip to the middle class Plimpton whilst at the same time being unable to see how his choices have affected no only his own life but those of his children.
Lahti is formidible. Her character, the rich girl turned radical turned loving mother, is given the greatest scenes in the movie. Meeting her father for the first time in nearly 20 years their conversation is one of the most powerful yet understated pieces of acting in 80s cinema. Steven Hill must take a share of the credit for the emotional turbulence on show but Lahti is note perfect - she is a small girl again in her father's presence trying to find some sense in the insanity she has become entangled in. Really, in a fair world this performance would have been rewarded with many awards.
Pheonix gives one of those performances that marked him out as such a great prospect - he is touchingly awkward with Plimpton, funny with his brother and yet wise to the pitfalls of his situation. The scene where he has to discuss his missing High School records is great to watch.
An actors film then...but all the better for it. The ending is honest, truthful and compelling. Why does nobody in Hollywood recognise there is a need for more work like this.